Pat McQuaid and a Search for Spine

Last week several media outlets carried an open letter that UCI President Pat McQuaid wrote to the union of professional cyclists, the CPA. Published on the UCI’s site as well as VeloNews, McQuaid explained the problems with riders’ desire to use radios and how the riders’ voices have been heard.

He did this in a sprawling, at times rambling, nearly 2000-word letter. His bottom line came less than 400 words in the letter, effectively eliminating the need for three-quarters of his communiqué. So why are radios banned and why is the point beyond negotiation? We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look a bit at the document he drafted.

In McQuaid’s opening sentence he previews what I’ll go ahead and call a bit of cowardice. He says, “The discussions are heated….” How about give us a simple declarative statement. We know where the discussions stand. We don’t need him to set the scene. He should tell us something of his views and not passively. Take a stand. How about instead of “That is why I feel it is necessary to address you collectively to try to clarify some points in the debate that is unfortunately no longer calm and constructive.” just write, “I write to you today to clarify the UCI’s decision to ban race radios.”

McQuaid refers to the “progressive banning of earpieces”; just how he uses the modifier “progressive” is a bit of a mystery. Is he saying that the decision marks a progressive improvement in the sport, or is he referring to the fact that the ban wasn’t enacted all at once. Similarly, he states the debate is “no longer calm and constructive.” I’m not sure who he has been listening to, but points made by AIGCP President Jonathan Vaughters have been in my reading both respectful and entirely rational.

He ratchets up the rhetoric congratulating “most of you” for the ability to “up until now … remain reasonable.” By not calling out just who isn’t “remaining reasonable” he casts a broad net, damning many with his faint praise.

The letter is plagued with a series of undefined referents. The next one that troubled me was, “our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism.” Um, who are we discussing? Are we discussing stakeholders within the sport, or people outside the sport? I define stakeholders as riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, equipment manufacturers, governing bodies and even fans. If we’re discussing “wide criticism” from within, define which stakeholder is leveling the criticism. If it’s from outside anyone we define as a stakeholder, who gives a shit? Obviously it’s unwise to govern the sport in a way that alienates potential sponsors, but if you don’t have any skin in the game, why should we care what you think?

Further confounding the reader’s search for clarity he refers to “this attitude.” Just what attitude is that? I’m guessing it’s the one that leveled “wide criticism,” but we have no idea who was doing the criticizing or just what that criticizing was. That said, he uses this vague reference to rhetorically wonder just what will set of the next conflict—presumably with the riders, though he doesn’t make that clear.

McQuaid finally reveals who the boogeyman in the race-radio ban scenario is: France Television. Apparently, executives at the network gave the UCI an ultimatum: get rid of radios or “television would be reduced.”

Where I come from this is colloquially referred to as blackmail.

Up until now we have all been led to believe that the decision to ban race radios was one made by the UCI and the UCI alone. Not only is this not the case, but McQuaid revealed a terrible weakness: He demonstrated that it is possible to blackmail the UCI and win, if what he says is true.

His next point concerns how German television (ARD and ZDF) have both dropped all cycling coverage because of doping. What he is attempting to do here is to draw an equivalency between race radios and doping. The logic goes: Doping caused two networks to drop cycling coverage. Less television coverage is bad; therefore doping is bad. Another network is threatening to drop cycling coverage because of race radios. Therefore race radios are bad. If race radios can do the same thing doping did—result in less cycling on television—then race radios are just as bad as doping.

People, I’m not making this up. McQuaid wants us to think of race radios as a no less a threat to cycling than doping.

Perhaps most disturbing is the second comparison he draws to doping. He writes,

“I would have preferred to leave doping out of this discussion, but I realise that I can’t resist pointing out a few facts on this subject …

“I don’t think that the riders are in the best position to remind us of the seriousness and the urgency of certain situations: if doping still exists, it’s is only because there are still riders who dope! And if it is true and undeniable that the habits of a large number of you have changed, it is also true that we are still confronted with a fairly high number of cases, which, despite the remarkable progress of our anti-doping results, means we are constantly in an environment of suspicion and tension faced with the public opinion.”

No one suggested he need refer to doping. There is no rational connection between the use of race radios and doping. By comparing the two, McQuaid unfairly paints many riders as dopers. Note his use of “large number” and “fairly high number.”

Just as insulting is his observation that the riders’ indignation, as evidenced by Jens Voigt’s and Grischa Niermann’s open letters, should be reserved for doping scandals. The suggestion here is that by not speaking out more forcefully when riders test positive they have somehow lost the right to complain.

McQuaid insists the UCI has listened to the riders, the teams, indeed anyone who believes race radios are helpful when he writes, “you have been falsely led to believe that the opinion of riders was never taken into consideration….”

What McQuaid and the whole of the UCI doesn’t understand is that riders don’t want a submission form for a newspaper-style letter to the editor. They want a seat at the table and a vote. When decisions are made about the competition they provide, they deserve a seat at the table and what is meant by a “voice” is a vote.

In short, a decision regarding race radios would be more easily viewed as democratic, and not unilateral, if each of the major stakeholders in the sport—riders, sponsors, directors, race organizers, networks and governing bodies—had a vote.

I’m surprised that no one has drawn a comparison between the Boston Tea Party and the ban on race radios. While the race radio ban isn’t a tax, both conflicts arise from the same dissatisfaction—no voice in the affairs that most concern them. Until you have a vote, you don’t have a voice. Period.

Suppose the UCI said, “We have come to realize that the speeds of the races are too great. To reduce speeds we will limit professional riders to a maximum gear of 40×17 to preserve their health; we have also determined that a flat bar will give riders a better vantage to see road hazards, thereby cutting down on accidents. Both these changes will give fans a greater opportunity to see their heroes as they ride by.” Would it be reasonable to expect the riders to compete in Milan-San Remo knowing their average speed might only be 33kph, making the race a nine-hour affair. Such a decision would affect the riders (by changing the nature of the racing), equipment manufacturers (think of the changes to bikes), team directors (changes in strategy), networks (changes in airtime) and race organizers (the length of road closures). Do you think each of those stakeholders would simply accept such a change made by the UCI?

Even if you dislike race radios, and I’ll admit that I was ambivalent on them for a while, I expect you can agree that riders deserve to vote on any decision that concerns them.

For now, though, that desire, no matter how reasonable some of us think it is, will remain unattainable. McQuaid’s patrician attitude demonstrates that he has no intention of giving riders a seat at the table. No matter; he has undermined his own authority with this letter, showing he is unwilling to take responsibility for decisions, and susceptible to blackmail. Even if McQuaid isn’t listening to the CPA, the CPA is listening to him.

Cycling can survive without the UCI, but the UCI can’t survive without cyclists.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. sophrosune

    Well done, Padraig. You have highlighted the understanding that fuzzy writing is usually the result of fuzzy thinking. I think it’s time that professional cycling free itself from the terrible leadership of the UCI. Period.

  2. Walter Nash

    Well done.

    McQuiad seems like he is trying to become the Bernie Ecclestone of cycling (but without the business building acumen or results). The UCI really adds nothing to the game beyond a rules/sanctioning framework (that can easily be supplied by another organization) yet wants big $$$ from all of the stakeholders. It is creating power for control’s sake….

    “You cannot race without paying us for a license, you cannot get your team into the races that matter unless you pay us money, your team must get bigger and more expensive to run and must attend all of the races we tell you to or we will not allow you into the races that matter to your team, you cannot have a race that we will allow the big teams to attend unless you pay us money, & we want a share of your TV money Mr. race organizer. By the way….we will not advertise or promote your races, we will not contribute a dime to the costs of the event and we will not help promote your team, your riders or your sponsors.” Nice gig….

    The arrogance & imperiousness shown by this kind of thing may just be the catalyst for a F1-style breakaway movement in cycling.

  3. todd k

    Today’s quote (per cyclingnews):“They constantly want to reduce the chances of bad luck, but did you see Milan-San Remo on Saturday? It was a great race, because of bad luck and crashes. There were 60km of intensity.”

    I gather now his position is that removing race radios is good because it increases the chances of crashes? Really? I thought his original position was that it had no impact on rider safety? Ah, but I guess if we are talking improved television ratings as the end goal…

    Folks have been doing a lot of F1 comparisons, but perhaps we have it all wrong and McQuaid is simply trying to bring more NASCAR into the sport?

  4. Touriste-Routier

    Padraig, just a minor correction: The AIGCP is the association of pro teams, not of the riders. Team interests and rider interests are not always one and the same. The CPA represents the riders (though to call it a union is a bit of a stretch) and is led by Gianni Bugno. JV is the current head of the AIGCP.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for your feedback. It’s troubling that every time you try to connect the dots between what Pat McQuaid says and how those implications play out, you end up with something that has no rational basis.

      Honestly, I don’t dislike the guy. From what I’ve seen of him on TV, I suspect he’d be a delightful dinner companion, but I sincerely doubt that he understands cycling’s best interests the way many others do. If he things great racing is made of crashes, I’m not sure he and I want to see the same races.

      Touriste-Routier: Thanks for the catch. I should be a screenwriter; I briefly conflated the two into one more cohesive organization. They might want to take my lead on that.

  5. parlorbikes

    This year at the Tour, your gonna see French police coming out of team buses with baggies full of micro sized banned radios and earpieces marked: EVIDENCE!!!! Par for the course, no one will be banned until radios are legal again, unfortunately. They could test riders after the race with a q-tip to see if any radio plasticizers are present. LOL

    Great job Patrick.

    Heard in a dark alley before a race “you got any batteries man?”

  6. Alex

    I´m failing to see anything good coming from UCI. Anything. Maybe I´m too naive or too detached from the insides of professional cycling, or maybe I´m just reading too many blogs, too many newspapers and too many magazines but all I see is UCI in attrition with… pretty much everyone and everything in the sport.

    When they seemingly come to an agreement with ASO (after years of strugle) and looks like the World Tour is finally taking off and things fitting in pro cycling, they reach this state of nerves with riders and teams. I may be wrong but I´m feeling a reeeally funky tension going on. And building, the whole atmosphere is just not cool. It´s bordering the surreal.

    Their position and attitude has been the same since I started following cycling, and that was a long time ago. This radio thing is a dèjavú of UCI past rulings on other subjects. It´s like they live in another galaxy and rule another sport, McQuaid clearly has no sense. At all. He´s the Gadaffi of cycling.

    It´s past the time to move on with this. I agree 100% with sophrosune. IMHO cycling hasn´t much to lose now, but a lot to gain getting rid of UCI´s shackles.

  7. Randomactsofcycling

    I think the root of the problem is that the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘UCI’ are mutually exclusive. There is in fact nothing about the UCI that corresponds with leadership. It is a purely reactionary organization.
    What troubled me the most about el Presidente’s ‘letter’ was not the inaccuracies or half truths but the way it was written. How poorly it was executed and arranged. Really, is this the best we have?

  8. Alex Torres

    … and he keeps turning the screws:

    Vaughters said it well: ridiculous. It´s amazing but it´s what usually happens when athletes become bureaucreats, as is the case with our McQuaid. UCI has no finger in the pulse of professional cycling and the tension is escalating. Poor strategy and absolute lack of vision!

    I´m not having dinner with him anyway so I´ll keep criticizing his distorted administration and absurd declarations hehehe… :-p

  9. Jim

    That lede was buried whale turd deep.

    French TV doesn’t like the predictability of stage (or long course) racing in the radio age (probably for ratings/ad revenue reasons) and has requested that the UCI remove radios, or face reduced TV coverage. McQuaid agreed and is now struggling to rationalize the decision in a way that doesn’t jeopardize cycling’s relationship w/t French TV (and all those who rely on its feeds).

    That’s the story and that’s the rational basis for the change.

    I don’t think it’s blackmail for French TV to do that. It’s a business tactic. Blackmail would be if French TV had proof of one of the McQuaid family providing dope for a top rider, and threatened to disclose that information unless McQuaid banned radios. But French TV is merely threatening to do less business with pro cycling if the status quo is maintained. This is *no* different than the U.S. networks threatening to carry less baseball if the league fails to take steps to shorten the ever-lengthening games.

    1. Author

      Jim: Technically, that particular bargaining strategy comes closer to extortion, I admit, but the emotional tenor of writing “blackmail” fits so much better. That said, I have my doubts about McQuaid’s story; in all the discussion about the race radio ban, this is the first time that French TV has ever been mentioned. Why wait until now to throw them under the bus if they had this excuse all along. I think he’s just tired of the heat. And even if the demand was made, I’m stunned that the UCI would yield to such pressure. Remember, that’s just one network, not all of them. From a TV standpoint, the way most races unfold, if well announced, makes for a much more exciting broadcast day than a breakaway gaining 10 minutes on the field and staying away to the finish. Having breaks usually get caught in the final 5k makes for much more unpredictable broadcasting and can keep a viewer’s interest much more effectively than a four-man break that has three minutes as they pass under the red kite. A breakaway that finishes with 10 seconds to spare doesn’t happen often, but it’s better watching than double overtime.

  10. Jay Batson

    And now, even more from the wonderful UCI: Regulating shoes, gloves & brakes.

    – Mandating disc brakes for ‘cross in 2012, rendering obsolete an entire investment in equipment by poor everyday riders who barely win any prize money, aren’t sponsored by a team, and pay for all their own gear. This action alone is likely to gut your everyday regional US UCI-sanctioned ‘cross race; nobody’s got the kit, so nobody will race.

    – Telling people what freakin’ gloves they have to use based on temperature, and a maximum limit on how big the effin’ nose-wipe is (to avoid “unclean appearances” on TV). Next up: Banning Paris-Roubaix, because Van Summerin rode in with a mouthful of dirt, leaving him DECIDEDLY unclean.

    – Shoes must be 70% black or white. “Yellow or red shoes are not longer allowed as they call attention to the individual as opposed to the sport.” Tell THAT to Mavic who has probably purchased next season’s materials already, whose entry to the sport was probably _built_ on the back of silly-looking Yellow shoes.

    You can only govern when those you govern consent to your governance. I’m not sure who consents to the UCI these days. It seems it’s time for a breakaway to go lead the peleton .. er, sport. One that governs with the class that riders, teams, sponsors, manufacturers – and we peon spectators – deserve.

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